Birth of Our Power

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By Victor Serge.

Great writing. And, by association a great translation. A well-formed novel and Serge then has the space to play and tease out philosophies and characters. This novel moves from Revolutionary Barcelona in 1917 to Petersburg and the journey in between. There’s still quite a lot of Serge for me to read. Excellent.

“Will you have some coffee? One should always appreciate coffee in troubled times. Humanity is wailing and suffering: let us sip the delectable mocha slowly; mine will be the egoist’s cup, yours whatever you wish; but it will leave the same bittersweet taste in our mouths.”

 

“The art of living consists in thinking. There are a few good moments: that is when, book in hand, you can lie down in the grass for an hour …”

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The Master and Margarita

 

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By Mikhail Bulgakov

This was a re-read as I was travelling to Moscow and wanted to see the city with Bulgakov’s eye. Patriarch Pond was pleasant and I waited for Woland there but there was no stall selling warm apricot juice, and no malevolent cat nearby. A magnificent novel. I think I enjoyed it most on this, the third, read.

“With a groan Ivan looked ahead and saw the hated stranger. He had already reached the exit leading on to Patriarch’s Street and he was no longer alone. The weird choirmaster had managed to join him. But that was not all. The third member of the company was a cat the size of a pig, black as soot and with luxuriant cavalry officers’ whiskers. The threesome was walking towards Patriarch’s Street, the cat trotting along on its hind legs.”

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A Novel Without Lies and Cynics

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By Anatoly Mariengoff.

Two excellent short novels. The best new writer I have read for a long time. Cynics is absolutely perfect in that the form complements the subject exactly. A Novel Without Lies is great too – a picaresque romp through Mariengoff and Esenin’s years as friends.

“What can I tell you about this most horrible kingdom of philistinism bordering on imbecility? Besides the foxtrot, there’s practically nothing here; they stuff themselves full of food and drink and then they foxtrot again. I’ve yet to meet a human being, and don’t know where to look for one. Mr. Dollar is terribly in vogue, and to hell with art; its highest expression is the ‘music hall.’ I didn’t even want to publish my books here, despite the affordability of paper and translators. Nobody cares about poetry. If the book market is Europe, and the critic is Lvov-Rogachevsky, then it’s senseless, isn’t it, to write verse to please them, to suit their tastes.” [Esenin writing from Europe]

 

Eventually we both come to the conclusion that after the Latin poets it is ridiculous to speak of Pushkin even when you are in your cups.

 

 

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The Adolescent

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By Fyodor Dostoevsky.

The last of Dostoevsky’s novels that I had not read. For large parts of it I didn’t enjoy it. Sometimes the exposition seemed a little ham-fisted. And, I didn’t really care about any of the characters too much, I wasn’t too interested in what was going to happen to them. Still, at the close of the novel I was glad I had read it. It lacked something that his great works have.

I don’t know, but I like it better when books are scattered about in disorder, when studies are at least not turned into a sacred rite.

 

life is all wanderings and perplexities, and suddenly—the resolution, on such-and-such a day, at five o’clock in the afternoon! It’s even offensive, isn’t it?

 

 

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The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

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By Vladimir Nabokov

Once again, a great novel. Perhaps maybe it is too aware of itself. And, I do have a dislike of writers writing about writing for the most part.

 

‘A dark country, a hellish place, gentlemen, and if there is anything of which I am certain in life it is that I shall never exchange the liberty of my exile for the vile parody of home …’

 

All is flesh and all is purity. But one thing is certain: I have been happy with you and now I am miserable with another. And so life will go on. I shall joke with the chaps at the office and enjoy my dinners (until I get dyspepsia), and read novels, and write verse, and keep an eye on the stocks – and generally behave as I have always behaved. But that does not mean that I shall be happy without you … Every small thing which will remind me of you.

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The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories

 

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By Nikolai Leskov.

This is quite an amazing compendium of his stories – only recently published. I liked the ebook so much I decided to purchase the hardcover. Leskov has very definitely been overlooked in the west and perhaps Russia too. There’s so much in his stories and you are transported but not just in a purely sensual way – the intellect is at work here also.

Some quotes:

‘Reading is an occupation far too serious and far too important in its consequences for young people’s tastes not to be guided in its selection.

 

Machines have evened out the inequality of talents and gifts, and genius does not strive against assiduousness and precision. While favouring the increase of earnings, machines do not favour artistic boldness, which sometimes went beyond all measure, inspiring popular fantasy to compose fabulous legends similar to this one. Workers, of course, know how to value the advantages provided by the practical application of mechanical science, but they remember the old times with pride and love. It is their epos, and, what’s more, with ‘a man’s soul inside’.

 

The dog dreams of bread, of fish the fisherman. Theocritus (Idyll)

 

That I couldn’t bear, and, in the words of the late poet Tolstoy, ‘having begun like a god, I ended like a swine’.

 

 

 

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Invitation to a Beheading and Despair

By Vladimir Nabokov.

Two very different novels. Despair has plot and psychology and it feels more like Nabokov even though Invitation to a Beheading was written later and has what can be described with the benefit of hindsight ‘Kafkaesque’ elements. Both are strong and excellent reads with much to think about. Nabokov was well in his stride in these mid-thirties novels (both in age and decade).

 

 

 

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The Spectre of Alexander Wolf

By Gaito Gazdanov.

Thoroughly enjoyable. I was going to say that nothing else has been translated – but there do seem to be more novels recently translated and some scheduled for release. They will be read.

“You are beginning to live. Taking part in what is called the struggle for life lies ahead of you. Roughly speaking, there are three types: the struggle for victory, the struggle for annihilation, and the struggle for consensus. You are all young and full of vigour, and so, naturally, you are drawn to the first type. But always remember that the most humane and most advantageous is the struggle for consensus. If you make of this a principle throughout your life, it will mean that the culture we have tried to bestow on you will not have been for nothing, that you have become true citizens of the world, and, consequently, we shall not have lived in this world in vain. Because, if it be otherwise, it will mean that we have merely wasted our time. We are old, we have no more strength to build a new life. We have one hope left, and that is you.”

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Quiet Flows the Don

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By Mikhail Sholokhov.

I can’t recommend this book enough. A timeless story and detailed interesting characters in four separate volumes that took 15 years to complete. Read this rather than War and Peace. I finished this a year ago and I still think about it regularly.

“And over the village slipped the days, passing into the nights; the weeks flowed by, the months crept on, the wind howled, and, glassified with an autumnal, translucent, greenish-azure, the Don flowed tranquilly down to the sea.”

 

 

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